The Unilingual Americans

America must strengthen its foreign language standards

New Jersey educational budgets were hit hard in 2010, and amidst the frenzy of necessary spending cuts, there was a clear victim: foreign languages. My town’s public schools were no exception. During the debates, often expressed was the misguided view that foreign language study, at an elementary school or middle school level, is a luxury. Yet in our ever-globalizing world where the number of native English speakers is decreasing, foreign language proficiency is a necessity.

Sadly, the experience of my school district is far from unique, and national statistics are not encouraging. A 2006 study by the U.S. Department of Education found that only 31 percent of elementary schools (and only 24 percent of public elementary schools) reported offering a foreign language.  Data from 2002, cited in the same study, demonstrated that only 44 percent of American high school students are enrolled in a foreign language and, at that time, less than one percent combined study Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Japanese, Korean, Russian or Urdu, some of the world’s most widely spoken languages.

The most common argument against the importance of foreign language is that other countries learn English. If they speak English, then speaking their native language is just a luxury. Though currently this may be the case, this assumption is largely reliant on American economic and geopolitical hegemony, which as many a news article about the rise of China can tell you, is being threatened daily. China still has many obstacles to overcome, but technology experts predict Chinese patent applications will soon overtake those from the United States. Many economists are predicting the Chinese economy will soon surpass that of America. Indeed, a recent article in Reuters quotes Simon H. Johnson, Professor of Global Economics and Management at MIT, as saying that “The age of American predominance is over. The Yuan will be the world's reserve currency within two decades.”

So what is America to do?  In his State of the Union, President Barack Obama correctly encouraged innovation as “the first step in winning the future.” Surely, this can be applied to the importance of foreign languages in public education. Math and science are crucial, but it’s time we start imagining a new model of American hegemony.  As Ken Gude, a former Center for National Security Studies policy analyst, told the Washington Times, "If the U.S., in the modern world, is going to maintain its position as a global leader it's going to have to become more conversant.”  Indeed, efforts must be made to encourage foreign language programs, particularly for younger children.  We must strive to raise a multi-lingual generation to meet the challenges of a more interconnected world.

At Harvard, the emphasis on studying abroad, the myriad of languages offered, and the foreign language requirement are important steps in the right direction. However, taking one year of foreign language or proving you got above a certain score on an SAT II language test does not necessarily make a proficient speaker.  For those of us who are not already multilingual, it is important for us, as Harvard students and as future citizens of the world, to strive to be more respectful and communicative by putting an even greater emphasis on foreign language.


Ryan M. Rossner ’13, an associate editorial editor, is an East Asian History concentrator in Winthrop House.